Lay Piety, Lay Independence

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In so many ways the chivalric layers of society thought and acted as conventionally

pious Christians; they followed the set course for life, from baptism at

the church font to the final rites and prayers as their bodies were lowered into

sanctified ground. Along the way, cellular acts of piety structured the religious

component of their daily lives: they heard mass, they made confession, they

said prayers, they gave alms. Many reinforced this lifelong cycle by some major

act, going on crusade or founding a religious house. Many, likewise, sought

the surety of a religious order as intimations of mortality came forcibly into

their consciousness.1

Chivalric literature portrayed and reinforced this orthodoxy. It reminded

the knights of the undeniable function of priests in the sacramental system of

which they were willing, prudent participants. A layman, even a knight,

needed priests as conduits for divine grace, especially at critical, liminal points

in life. Knights in this literature regularly state their fear of dying without confession.

In Chrétien’s Perceval one key injunction the hero hears from his mother as

he starts out into the world is to go to church or chapel to hear mass regularly.3

Galahad, as readers of The Quest of the Holy Grail learned, ‘always chafed if a

day passed without his hearing the holy office’.4 Lancelot in the Mort Artu regularly

hears mass and says the proper prayers ‘as a Christian knight should’; he

confesses to an archbishop before his single combat with Gawain.5 Balain and

1 Chibnall, ed., tr., Ecclesiastical History, provides abundant examples. Cf. the excellent article

by Harper-Bill, ‘Piety of the Anglo-Norman Knightly Class’.

2 E.g., Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 219; Sommer, ed.,Vulgate Version, III, 396; one of many

examples in this text. In the Lancelot, Arthur himself, thinking that he is about to die, cries out,

‘Oh, God! Confession! The time has come!’: Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 276; Sommer, ed.,

Vulgate Version, IV, 76.

3 Bryant, tr., Perceval, 7; Roach, ed., Roman de Perceval, ll. 568–94.

4 Matarasso, tr., Quest, 72; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, VI, 34.

5 Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 32, 178; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 12.

his brother, dying tragically from their mutually inflicted wounds, take the

sacrament and beg Christ for forgiveness of their sins ‘they received their rites,

such as Christian knights should have, and . . . asked forgiveness of their

Saviour for their sins and misdeeds’.6 Gautier similarly visits a church to pray

before his single combat in Raoul de Cambrai, though in this case the author

tarnishes the bright ideal image with a realistic comment: on this occasion

there was no joking, nothing omitted.7 In their battlefield prayers, knights

themselves (William and Vivian, for example, in the cycle of William of

Orange) present mini-sermons complete with summations of basic Christian

dogma, or they listen to similar sermons preached to them by clerics, as do the

knights of the Chanson d’Aspremont.8

In fact, in our literary evidence knights seem to swim in a sea of piety, using

religious language even in situations that strike modern sensibilities as purely

secular. ‘In God’s name, I am called the marquis William’, announces William

of Orange to his opponent in The Crowning of Louis.9 ‘In God’s name, I think

you will find him the most comely and well-made youth you have ever seen’,

Sir Yvain says to the queen, speaking of Lancelot in the Lancelot do Lac.10 King

Louis solemnizes over relics his obligations to give Raoul a fief;11 William of

Orange swears over relics to protect King Louis;12 all knights swear constantly

by some favourite saint, or by the relics in some church near at hand; Roland

and Ganelon carry weapons bearing sacred relics within their hilts; Gawain, in

The Marvels of Rigomer has the names of the Trinity inscribed on his sword


The great waves which well up from this sea of piety are not lacking in

chivalric literature. Girart founds a monastery for three hundred monks in the

Chanson d’Aspremont.14 Of course, crusade features so largely in chivalric literature,

especially in works traditionally classed as epic, as almost to defy illustration.

6 Asher, tr., ‘Merlin Continuation’, 221; Paris and Ulrich, eds, Merlin, II, 56.

7 Kay, ed., tr., Raoul de Cambrai, laisse 201.

8 Muir, tr., Song of William; McMillan, ed., La Chanson de Guillaume, laisses 67–8; Hoggan,

tr., Crowning of Louis; Langlois, ed., Couronnement de Louis, laisse 22. For basic doctrine in both

prayers and sermons, see Newth, ed., tr., Song of Aspremont and Brandin, ed., Chanson

d’Aspremont, laisses 28–9, 118, 235, 385. The hermits in The Quest of the Holy Grail sermonize the

knights at regular intervals.

9 Hoggan, Crowning of Louis; Langlois, Couronnement de Louis, I, laisse 22.

10 Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 70; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 156.

11 Kay, Raoul de Cambrai, laisse 35.

12 Hoggan, Crowning, Langlois, Couronnement de Louis, II, laisse 13.

13 Brault, ed., tr., Chanson de Roland, laisses 46, 173; Vesce, ed., tr., Marvels of Rigomer, 275;

Foerster, ed., Mervelles de Rigomer, ll. 12910–14. The use of relics is not merely a literary conceit.

As late as the Tudor period, kings and knights kept pieces of the skull, joints, and bones of St

George in their armour and their chapels. See Gunn, ‘Chivalry’, 110.

14 Laisse 508, in Brandin, Chanson d’Aspremont, and Newth, Song of Aspremont.

Imaginative literature is supported by more traditional historical sources.

The chivalric example par excellence in the late twelfth century, William

Marshal went on pilgrimage to Cologne, fought as a crusader, founded a religious

house, and died in the robe of a Templar, having made provision to be

received into the order years before. His biographer records William’s belief

that all his knightly achievement was the personal gift of God.15

Geoffroi de Charny (more than a century later) similarly went on crusade,

and founded a religious house. Through a sheaf of papal licences, granted in

response to his requests, we can sense his piety no less than his influence: he

had the right to a portable altar, the right to receive from his confessor a plenary

indulgence when facing death, the right to hear a first mass of the day

before sunrise, the right to have a family cemetery alongside the church he

founded.16 As readers of his Book of Chivalry, we know in detail how thoroughly

he agreed with William Marshal’s belief in God as the fountainhead of

all chivalric honour. Charny sets out this formula time and again. A healthy

mixture of fear and gratitude can be the only proper response on the part of

knights. Charny, in fact, almost floats in pieties on the pages of his book.17

Marshal and Charny were model knights, however, and not simply model

Christians. In company with all knights, they lived by the sword, and the

founder of their religion had said some troubling words about such lives.

Their violent vocation necessarily shaped their practice of religion: their piety

scarcely could be that of merchants or craftsmen. The tension between the

ideal standards of their Christianity and the daily practice of violence brings us

back to the issues raised by Twain’s harsh dichotomies.

In fact, the knightly solution seems clear and characteristic: they largely

appropriated religion; they absorbed such ideas as were broadly compatible

with the virtual worship of prowess and with the high sense of their own

divinely approved status and mission; they likewise downplayed or simply

ignored most strictures that were not compatible with their sense of honour

and entitlement.

This seeming paradox in fact formed one of the structural features of chivalric

ideology and a great source of its strength. For in one of its essential dimensions

chivalry rested on the very fusion of prowess and piety; it functioned as

the male, aristocratic form of lay piety; it was itself, in other words, an embodiment

of the religious force that worked so powerfully to shape society, at least

from the twelfth century. The worship of the demigod prowess—with all the

ideas and practices of the quasi-religion of honour—was merged with

medieval Christianity. If sometimes the yawning gap separating the two

Knights and Piety 47

15 Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 6171–92, 7274–87, 9285–90, 18216–406.

16 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 38–9. 17 Ibid., passim.

systems of belief stimulated inspired writing (as in The Quest of the Holy Grail,

or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), more often the gap was simply, willfully,

not seen. In a prologue to his translation of Christine de Pisan’s Epistle of Othea

(c. 1440), Stephen Scrope assured Sir John Fastolf that God ‘ys souuerayn

cheyveten and knyght off all cheualrie’. Having spent most of his life in ‘dedys

of cheualrie and actis of armis’, Fastolf should now turn to ‘gostly cheuallrie’

to prepare himself for ‘the ordre of knyghthode that schal perpetuelly endure

and encrese in joye and worship endlese’.18 The key trait of knightly prowess

wins divine approbation; disloyalty and anything leading to dishonour

becomes sin, a moral and not merely a social blunder.

Earning honour by prowess appears throughout most chivalric literature as

complementary to the worship of God. Approval for prowess—at least for

prowess in the right causes—comes not only from humans but descends from

highest heaven. In fact, God opens wide the doors of paradise for his brave

knights. Geoffroi de Charny cannot often enough or forcefully enough preach

that prowess, like all good things, comes as a gift of God, that the Lord will

welcome his good knights, those who use this great gift well, into paradise.19

By the time he wrote, in the mid-fourteenth century, the theme had been well

developed. Promises of heavenly reward for crusaders punctuate both chansons

de geste and historical accounts of crusade preaching. This valorization, as we

will see, gradually became a blessing on all of knightly life.

The approbation of God appears time and again. Early in The History of the

Holy Grail Seraphe (though he is still a pagan) receives the gift of great

prowess from God. Fighting against the enemies of the early Christians, ‘no

feat of arms could be compared to his prowess, performed with his hands, for

he held a marvellously strong and sharp battle-axe in both hands’. Using this

weapon, ‘he cut strong shields, sliced thick hauberks, cleaved helmets and

visors; he slashed feet, legs and arms; chests, heads, ribs and thighs; he bathed

his battle-axe up to the shaft in the blood of men and horses.’ Seraphe heroically

keeps up the work even after he is unhorsed and trampled by two hundred

horsemen. Christ himself, acting through the White Knight, supplies him

with a new and even more efficient axe. As the White Knight announces, handing

it over, ‘Here, Seraphe, this is sent to you by the True Crucified One.’20 If

God supplies the weapons, he can also direct the blows. In the Didot Perceval

Arthur splits the Roman emperor down to the waist with a great sword stroke

delivered ‘with the aid of God’.21

18 Bühler, ed., Epistle of Othea, 121–4. 19 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 132–3.

20 Chase, tr., History of the Holy Grail, 36–41. The White Knight himself, of course, performs

marvellous ‘feats of arms and chivalry’: p. 41; see also Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, I, 56–65.

21 Skells, tr., Perceval in Prose, 88; William Roach, ed., The Didot Perceval, 271.

The Almighty is pictured as a fine judge as well as a general approver of

prowess. The Ship of Faith that he sends to the three companions in The Quest

of the Holy Grail carries a sword reserved for the knight with the greatest

prowess; its blade bears the daunting message, written appropriately in bloodred

letters, ‘that none should be so bold as to draw the sword unless he was to

strike better and more boldly than anyone else’. The penalty for a failed

attempt is injury or death.22 However much we spiritualize such a symbol, we

must stop to consider its message at the most apparent level: God provides a

test for determining the best knight, that is, the one with the greatest prowess,

the divine gift to knighthood.23

God, as he appears in chivalric literature, likes knightly doing and daring,

even if reformers were careful to picture him on their side. For his worthy

knights, moreover, God supplies opportunities. Divine power holding the

sunlight to give Charlemagne light for his bloody revenge after the death of

Roland is only the most well-known case in point.24 Finding a beautiful glade,

early in the Perlesvaus, Perceval’s immediate, almost reflexive thought is that

‘two knights could joust well and handsomely on that ground’. He prays to

God: ‘in your gentleness [let a knight appear] with whom I can test whether

there is strength or valour or chivalry in me.’ God sends one of the best, in fact,

for Lancelot appears and the two nearly kill one another, though in ‘the great

rage that they bore each other and the great ardour of their will . . . they were

hardly aware of their wounds’. Providentially, a hermit appears to end this

conflict of uncle and nephew who, as always in such fights, recognize each

other only after the combat has ended.25

Divine approval of prowess is often conveyed by saints or angels. Gabriel

appears in Roland, for example, not only to carry away Roland’s soul to its

well-earned rest, but to urge on Charlemagne when his prowess slips a bit in

hand-to-hand combat with the pagan Amiral. Dazed, his skull creased by a

mighty sword blow, Charles hears Gabriel, standing like a coach by his side,

demand, ‘ “Great King, what are you doing?” ’ Charlemagne quickly recovers

and spills his opponent’s brains.26 The Virgin Mary retrieves Rainouart’s great

Knights and Piety 49

22 Chase, tr., History of the Holy Grail, 77–8, 83; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, VI, 121–4, 133–4.

This is King David’s sword, put on the marvellous ship by King Solomon. Divine power later

wounds Nascien for drawing the sword unworthily. Chase, ibid., 97; Sommer, ibid., 163. Cf

Matarasso, tr., Quest, 212–20; Pauphilet, ed., Queste, 200–8. The scabbard also bears a warning

that ‘He who wears me shall do greater deeds than any other’, before it continues with a concise

sermon on chastity.

23 For symbolic interpretations, see Matarasso, Redemption of Chivalry, 65–7. Obviously, no

unbelievers need apply; yet within the subset of the elect, the test involves prowess as well as piety.

24 See Brault, ed., tr. Chanson de Roland, laisse 176.

25 Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 92–3; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 139–42.

26 Brault, Chanson de Roland, laise 261.

cudgel for him on a battlefield in the Chanson de Guillaume, when he has

unfortunately left it behind.27 In one popular story, the Virgin even jousted for

a knight who missed a tournament because of his devotions to her.28 The military

saints similarly do more than approve or enable the warriors, of course:

both chronicle and chanson de geste depict them joining in the fight.29

Such an accommodation of the ChristianGodwithin the ideas of knighthood

thus provides a third crucial element in the tough metallic alloy of chivalry,

adding strength to further fusionswewill explore in detail later: prowess alloyed

with honour (secured with the catalyst of loyalty), with high status, and with

love; knights conceived of chivalry as a practised form of religion, not merely as

knighthood with a little pious and restraining overlay. Through the practice of

chivalry, the heroic life and ideals, which carried a strong sense of independent

moral standards, combined with selected principles of medieval Christianity;

through chivalric ideas and practices, warriors fused their violent way of life and

their dominance in society with the will of God.

Moreover, there was another benefit to the bargain, powerfully present even

if seldom stated explicitly. Knights know that God will understand and forgive

the slips that mar their moral scorecards, especially since the very toughness of

their lives functions as a form of penance.

This knightly belief appears classically in Gawain’s attitude on the Grail

quest; Malory tells us Gawain heard more about his sins (especially his

killings) from a hermit-confessor than he wanted, and so hurried off, using the

excuse that his companion, Sir Ector, was waiting for him. He had already

explained to the hermit that he could accept no penance: ‘I may do no

penaunce, for we knyghtes adventures many tymes suffir grete woo and

payne.’30 The tendency, then, was for knights to believe that they had a private

arrangement with the Lord God (not dissimilar from that with the lord king):

their hard lives, bravely chosen and followed through all hardships, all but provided

penance enough for their inevitable sins. A hermit who hears Gaheriet’s

confession in the Merlin Continuation, for example, ‘gave him such penance as

he thought he could do along with his labour at arms’.31

This attitude is resisted in the thirteenth-century Quest of the Holy Grail,

probably because it was common. Malory seems much more comfortable with

27 Muir, tr., Song of William, McMillan, ed., Chanson de Guillaume, laisse 160. Archbishop

Turpin rebukes the Virgin (in the Middle English Sege of Melayne) when she allows Roland to be

temporarily defeated; see the lines quoted in Gist, Love and War, 140.

28 Story cited in Keen, Chivalry, 98.

29 See, e.g., Newth, ed., tr., Song of Aspremont, and Brandin, ed. Chanson d’Aspremont, laisses

425–6, for military saints helping out on the battlefield.

30 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 535, 563.

31 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation (end), 46; Sommer, ed., Zeitschrift für Romanische Philologie,


the idea of a bargain between God and merely ‘earthly chivalry’ than with the

insistence on ‘heavenly chivalry’ in the Quest.32 Geoffroi de Charny, too,

would have at least understood Gawain, for all the piety he wrote into his Book

of Chivalry, for all the reverence of the clergy he insisted upon in its pages.

Knightly lay piety, in short, involved an appreciable degree of practical lay

independence; chivalry took on the valorizing mantle of religion without fully

accepting the directive role claimed by ecclesiastics; it virtually absorbed religion

for its own purposes, in no small measure on its own terms. Knights did

not simply and obediently bow before clerical authority and, bereft of any

ideas of their own, absorb the lessons and patterns for their lives urged by their

brothers, sisters, and cousins bearing tonsures and veils. Knights thought they

had an understanding with God, a contract which finally bypassed the troublesome

clerics, even while paradoxically acknowledging their essential sacerdotal


The particular nature of their piety, then, and the way in which it combined

their power in the world with the valorization of other-worldly approval helps

explain the strength of chivalry. Admittedly, some men in any age seem to

need no justification beyond the imperious surge of their own will; but perhaps

most men in most ages act more confidently when they can feel that what

they want to do is not so distant from what they should do. Such reassurance

in chivalry came largely from the knightly appropriation of religion; chivalric

piety acted not simply as a force in opposition to main currents of knightly life,

but in consonance with them.

The appropriation shows up clearly in historical texts such as biographies

and chronicles, and not merely in those relating crusading history. In the Song

of Dermot and the Earl, a chronicle of the late twelfth-century English invasion

of Ireland, the English leader more than once urges his knights to sally forth

‘in the name of the Almighty Father’. The poet himself tells us that as the

knights rush into battle from a coastal fort they are sent by ‘the good Jesus’.

Miles de Cogan calls upon them in another fight (in words that could be borrowed

from the Song of Roland) to ‘Strike, in the name of the Cross! / Strike,

barons nor delay at all, / In the name of Jesus the son of Mary!’ His countryman

Raymond le Gros often invoked St David in his very martial speeches.33

This language can be heard century after century. Froissart says the English

launched their crossing of the Somme, in the campaign leading to the field at

Crécy (1346), invoking ‘the name of God and St George.’34 The Black Prince,

Knights and Piety 51

32 See Vinaver’s comments in Malory. Works, 758–60.

33 Orpen, ed., tr., The Song of Dermot, ll. 1443, 1471, 1883–4, 1924–6, 1937–40. When a cowled

monk kills an Irish lord with an arrow, the man is much praised: see ll. 2005–10.

34 Brereton, tr., Froissart, 60.

before his great battle at Najera (1367), uttered an equally revealing prayer,

with clasped hands raised to heaven:

True, sovereign Father, who hast made and created us, as truly as Thou dost know that

I am not come here save for the maintenance of right, and for prowess and nobility

which urge and incite me to gain a life of honour, I beseech Thee that Thou wilt this

day guard me and my men.35

God, the author of prowess and honour, is expected to understand.

The strong element of lay independence in chivalry appears most blatantly

in blistering anticlericalism. Sometimes the imagined attacks even go beyond

the verbal to become directly physical.36 In The Coronation of Louis, for example,

a cleric tells William that some of his fellow clerics are involved in a plot

against the young king Louis. This loyal informer suggests that William

behead them, despite their order, and for his part offers to take upon himself

the sin of desecrating the Church in this way. ‘Blessed be the hour that such a

cleric was nurtured’, William replies in wonder and gratitude, though he

finally decides on a lesser sacrilege: he will simply beat the tonsured traitors

and toss them out of the building, commending them to eighty devils.37

If the abuse directed at clerics in chivalric literature is more often verbal, it

is no less informative. Denunciation of priests as greedy and lecherous is standard

practice, but the interesting broader goal in chivalric literature is to

demonstrate the equality or even superiority of the loyal and necessary

knightly function in society. Chrétien has Gawain say:

. . . a man can give good advice to another

who cannot heed advice himself,

just like those preachers

who are sinful lechers,

but who teach and preach the good

that they have no intention of practicing themselves!38

Rainouart in Aliscans tells William, who has just forcibly conquered countless

pagans, that he converts so well he should be a cleric; the knife slips in soon,

however, for he then describes their soft and dissolute life in terms that bring

general laughter.39 The biography of William Marshal refers pointedly to those

standard figures of anticlerical satire, Saints Alfinus and Rubinus (i.e. Blessed

Silver and Gold), and says that they are much honoured at the papal court.40

35 Pope and Lodge, eds., The Black Prince, ll 3172–83.

36 Noble provides a highly useful sampling of anti-clerical sentiments in a number of chansons:

‘Anti-Clericalism’, 150–8.

37 Hoggan, tr., ‘Crowning of Louis’, 35–7; Langlois, ed., Couronnement de Louis, 53–6.

38 Kibler, ed., tr., Yvain, ll. 2537–43.

39 Ferrante, ed., tr., Guillaume d’Orange, 274; Wienbeck et al., eds. Aliscans, 505.

The author of the Song of Roland, after gazing in wondering admiration at the

feats of the knight/archbishop Turpin on the battlefield, asks, rhetorically,

‘Where is the priest who drove his body to do such mighty deeds?’41 The question

would appeal to Geoffroi de Charny, who would make the same point in

only slightly altered form several centuries later. Comparing the ease of a

priestly career with the rigours of the knightly life, Charny notes that the clerics

‘are spared the physical danger and the strenuous efforts of going out onto

the field of battle to take up arms, and are also spared the threat of death’.42 The

author of Roland was even more explicit in his answer, however, and he presents

Archbishop Turpin himself to state the case. Asking what a knight is

worth who is not strong and fierce in battle, he answers his own question

unambiguously, ‘not . . . four pennies . . . / Instead he should be in one of

those monasteries / Praying all the time for our sins.’43

At one point William of Orange similarly and pointedly reminds King Louis

that the French thought he was of little worth and wanted to make him a

cleric.44 In another text in the same cycle William tells Louis, who has failed to

take up his father’s offer of the crown with vigor, that he might as well be a

monk.45 On the arrival of Enide’s father for her wedding to Erec, Chrétien

assures his audience that the bride’s father ‘did not have a troop of chaplains /

or of silly or gaping folk, / but of good knights.’46 Never trust a priest except

at confession time, says the author of the Chanson d’Aspremont.47 The statement

has the ring of a popular maxim.